TIME is running out for a deal between King Abdullah and Jordan’s political parties, as elections early next year loom. The kingdom’s political forces are threatening a boycott in protest against a system that lets political parties contest fewer than a fifth of the seats, whereas the rest go to individuals, whom the regime has long reckoned to be more malleable than people on party lists. No hint of compromise is in the air, though a new prime minister, Abdullah Ensour, is said to be relatively reform-minded and keen to stop the security types from fiddling the results.
On October 4th the king dissolved parliament, signalling his intent to press on with the election despite the boycott. The next day the Muslim Brotherhood (badged in Jordan as the Islamic Action Front), by far the best-organised and beefiest of the opposition parties, replied with the largest and most menacing mass protest in Jordan since the Arab awakening elsewhere nearly two years ago. Some 15,000 people, mostly Islamists, filled the square near Amman’s al-Husseini mosque. “Remember Qaddafi,” warned a hothead from Irbid, a northern town, to cheers from the crowds. “Next stop, Tahrir Square,” cried a cocky Muslim Brother.
More fluent in his native English than in Arabic, the king took his campaign to America’s air waves. Jordan’s Brotherhood, he said, represented only 12% of Jordanians yet was seeking to hijack politics by means of street demagoguery. “They are not running because they are not going to do well,” the king limply told Jon Stewart, an American talk-show host.
But a collision would suit neither the king nor the Brotherhood. Abdullah needs support from the Islamists if he is to push through the swingeing austerity measures the IMF is demanding as proof for Jordan’s Western creditors that he remains a reformer. The IMF has offered to drip-feed $2 billion into the ailing economy, but in return wants the king to cut subsidies on fuel and electricity and prune his bloated public sector. But mindful of growing discontent he has twice in the past four months funked taking such measures.